“A Descent Into the Maelström”

Last week’s piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing was . . .

Review: “A Descent Into the Maelström“, Edgar Allan Poe, 1841.Annotated Edgar Allan Poe

Because this is Poe and you might know the story already, I’m going to spend less time discussing the plot and more time summarizing the criticism around the tale and its relevance as a scientific metaphor.

The tale is pretty simple in outline. The narrator has climbed to the top of a 1500 foot peak overlooking the sea. With him is an old, white-haired man who still seems spry despite his aged look. And he’s definitely not as nervous as the narrator as he overlooks the crashing waves and is buffeted by blasting wind.

Moskstraumen — Site of the Tale

On Mount Helseggen, they look at a gigantic whirlpool that’s been known to take down entire ships. The old man tells how he once was trapped in that whirlpool, but, unlike his two brothers who were also aboard, he escaped to tell the tale, an event which aged him and turned his hair white in a day. (The Oxford English Dictionary notes that Poe is the only known example in English of putting an umlaut in Maleström.)

Harry Clarke Illustration for the Tale

The Sources

Stephen Peithman’s notes in his The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe’s reworking of various sources. The immediate inspiration was Edward Wilson Landor’s “The Maelstrom: a Fragment” from 1834. (Sam Moskowitz, in the “Prophetic Edgar Allan Poe” chapter of his Explorers of the Infinite says a manuscript of Poe’s story exists from 1833. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore says no original manuscript is extant. I know which version I’ll believe.) Both stories have a ship trapped in the whirlpool with a hero escaping alive. But, whereas Landor’s hero faints after he escapes and can’t remember how he did it, Poe’s story is very much concerned with the how of the escape, the epitome of Poe’s applied ratiocination — though it’s not quite that simple as we’ll see.

Poe then seems to have gone to the Encyclopedia Britannica – anywhere from the third to sixth editions – and the 1834 Mariner’s Chronicle (which seems to have copied a lot from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry). The Mariner’s Chronicle added the supposedly true account of an American sea captain who went into the Maelstrom and lived. The Encyclopedia Britannica article also used material from the 1755 The Natural History of Norway by Erik Potoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, and Poe references his name.

Ian Miller Illustration for the Tale

The Style

Peithman notes that Poe is frequently criticized for obscure, vague, and convoluted language. That, however, is usually used by him when describing a character whose mental state is unbalanced by terror or insanity. The old sailor’s account is quite lucid in its details and straightforward.

In fact, Peithman compares the Norwegian sailor to the protagonist of Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Both try to exactly measure the environment around them and get out of their situations by carefully paying attention to detail.

In fact, the Norwegian talks about how he and his brothers carefully went to fishing areas others shunned as too dangerous, timing their trip with his watch to avoid the periodically appearing whirlpool. The trouble begins when an unexpected storm prevents their return home and a broken watch messes up their timing.

Daniel Hoffman in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe emphasizes the Norwegian’s mathematical intuition and observation. When his ship is caught in the whirlpool, he escapes by noticing that certain objects, particularly cylindrical ones, are sucked down into the steep – more than a 45 degree angle – sides of the whirlpool more slowly than the ship. He rightly deduces that attaching himself to flotsam of the right shape may mean he will stay afloat until the whirlpool stops.

Rationality versus Aestheticism

But this is not simply a tale of rationality. It is also about the limits of rationality. After all, those fishermen brothers braved the mighty forces of nature and that emblem of a Newtonian universe, a watch, fails them and disaster results. Also, the fisherman tells us that all his talk about the particular shapes (“sphere” and “cylinder”) comes from a schoolteacher that he discussed his experience with.

‘He explained to me — although I have forgotten the explanation — how what I observed was, in fact, the natural consequence of the forms of the floating fragments — and showed me how it happened that a cylinder, swimming in a vortex, offered more resistance to its suction, and was drawn in with greater difficulty than an equally bulky body, of any form whatever.’

Peithman notes Poe cunningly having the Norwegian forget the explanation and then go right ahead and offer one – or, at least, Poe’s explanation which is rather fanciful. The correctness of the explanation is less important than that one is offered.

For that matter, the story opens with the narrator, on first seeing the whirlpool in action, states,

The attempts to account for the phenomenon — some of which, I remember, seemed to me sufficiently plausible in perusal — now wore a very different and unsatisfactory aspect.

Besides the matter of trying to skirt the zone of the whirlpool by timing it, there are other signs of the failure of rationality. We are given the names of the various nearby islands. We’re given a quote from that Encyclopedia Britannica article giving the depth of the channel where the whirlpool forms every six hours as between 35 and 40 channels. But the narrator, based on his own eyes, says the “the depth in the centre of the Moskoe-ström must be immeasurably greater”.

Gerald M. Sweeney’s “Beauty and Truth: Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom” notes that the tale is as much concerned with the truth in nature’s beauty and lethal wonder as ratiocination though he goes a bit too far in stating that all the Norwegian’s measurements are futile. They do help him escape.

But that is after he undergoes “beneficial despair”. He abandons hope and rationality.

‘I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power.’

But then wonder replaces terror in the Norwegian as he sees the grandeur of the sight, a “high, black, mountainous ridge” of water, where inside the winds are stilled. The Norwegian only wishes that he could live to tell others of the mysteries he sees. As with the narrator of “The Pit and the Pendulum” his escape happens after abandoning hope. Sweeney argues his salvation only occurs after he appreciates the beauty of the “order and symmetry” of the Maelstrom. It is not rationality that mainly saves him but aesthetic appreciation and realization rationality can not best

The Nowegian may appear to lack the physical vigor of the narrator, but he doesn’t. He has seen the mysteries of nature and no longer trembles like the narrator.

Margaret J. Yonce’s “The Spiritual Descent into the Maelström: A Debt to ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” discusses the debt Poe’s story owes to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem.

First, both open with an old man determined to tell the narrator a story about mysteries they have seen at sea.

Second, the narrators and the old men they encounter are opposites in each work.

Third, the Ancient Mariner’s crime is shooting an albatross out of hubris. The Norwegian is guilty of pride in thinking he can routinely avoid the Maelström. The Ancient Mariner comes to appreciate God’s handiwork. The Nowegian must appreciate the grandeur of the Maelström and accept annihilation before he observes how to escape it.

There is also the matter of each narrator’s place in their community which is different in the two stories. By killing that albatross, the Mariner violates a taboo of the community he is a part of. The Norwegian doesn’t violate any taboo, but his older brother does in taking the Norwegian’s place at an iron loop so he can hold on to it as the ship descends into the Maelstrom. This selfish act dooms the brother, but the Norwegian’s selflessness works out well when he holds onto the wooden cask which will be his salvation.

Both use moonlight in striking ways. Coleridge has the moonlight revealing, for the first time, the horror of his situation to the Ancient Mariner. It is by moonlight that the Norwegian first sees his watch is broken, and it is by moonlight that the terrible grandeur of the whirlpool is seen:

‘The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel prodigious in circumference, immeasurable in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.’

Peithman remarks that one Frank Jordan, in the October 1935 issue of Natural History, noted that, given the time of the year and latitude of the whirlpool, the moon would actually be barely above the southern horizon and the sun would still be shining. Clearly, Poe tossed astronomical verisimilitude over in favor of a spectacle inspired by Coleridge.

Inspiration for Jules Verne

Does that whirlpool sound familiar? It should. It’s where Poe fan Jules Verne ended (at least until The Mysterious Island) the career of Captain Nemo in Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Scientific Metaphor

I had heard that this story is sometimes described as a prophetic description of how a black hole works.

Being somewhat skeptical of this, I did an internet search and actually found a fair number of confirming examples from scientists, particularly for rotating black holes. You can also find, not unexpectedly, references to the story in discussion of vortices in the ocean which are also compared to black holes.

A Founding Document for Hard Science Fiction

In the introduction to the story in David G. Hartwell’s and Kathryn Cramer’s The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, they proclaim:

This story is then a founding document of the whole science fiction approach and attitude of the Golden Age. Its vision of a great dangerous natural object, the whirlpool, is perhaps the ancestor of such ‘black-hole’ stories as Poul Anderson’s ‘Kyrie’.

In the same book, Cramer, in her essay “On Science and Science Fiction”, also sees Poe’s story as being about knowledge that is deadly but numinous in its revelation. She says that the aesthetics of hard science fiction are about knowledge,

even knowledge of the most disturbing, overwhelming kind – that which is bigger than one’s loving or hating it.


More reviews of Poe related material are linked at the Poe page.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

3 thoughts on ““A Descent Into the Maelström”

  1. EG July 13, 2019 / 5:17 am

    It’s always a little disheartening to learn that a great work I’ve long admired has some scientific flaws in it. For example, the time of the year making it impossible for the moon to be shining down into the maelstrom and, instead, the sun still being up.

    However, it still isn’t nearly enough to interfere with my enjoyment of “Descent into the Maelstrom.”

    I’ve always liked the first two paragraphs of this story in particular, which seem to pull the reader in and make it difficult not to want to read on.

    • marzaat July 13, 2019 / 10:49 am

      I still like the story even with the astronomical error (something Lovecraft wouldn’t have made). Poe considered this one of his best stories, and my appreciation of it was increased after reading the articles I referenced.

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